Professor John McNeil AO

Professor John McNeil AO

John McNeil AO is a public health researcher whose contributions to medical research have resulted in some 600 publications and more than 43,000 citations, secured more than $150 million in competitive funding and have changed the landscape of research into chronic disease, preventive health, and healthcare quality.

An exemplary leader, teacher and researcher, John was awarded a Distinguished Professorship from Monash University in 2017 and a Distinguished Alumni Award by the University of Adelaide in 2022.

In his own words…

My father was a metallurgical engineer whose enthusiasm for science rubbed off on me. For most of my adolescence I was determined to be an engineer. However, the career pathways seemed more straight forward in medicine, which was a last-minute choice.

As an undergraduate, I spent my summer holidays working in the Department of Physiology & Pharmacology (and later Medicine) on Heart Foundation vacation scholarships. After that experience of research, I never really considered any other career.

Each evening at our dinner table I spoke with such enthusiasm about what I had done and learnt as an undergraduate that it inspired my three brothers to enrol in medicine. Having now spent a career in universities, I am convinced that the clinical training we received at the University of Adelaide was superb, at the highest international standard.

A portrait of John McNeil holding his DAA trophy

Prof John McNeil at the University of Adelaide Distinguished Alumni Award ceremony in 2022

My PhD supervisor (Prof Bill Louis) then introduced me to new drug research. At London University Professor Geoffry Rose introduced me to epidemiology as ‘the basic science of clinical medicine’ which was a revelation. It became clear how to determine if one treatment or diagnostic test is better than another, and how to rank the reliability of clinical evidence. This knowledge has underpinned my work ever since.

My career has also been underpinned by my wife, who I met at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Her energy, resilience and organisational skills have always been a wonder to me.

The ultimate purpose of my research has been to delay the onset of disabling diseases affecting older people and extend living independently. It addresses very practical and understandable issues that are clear national priorities.

Because of my background, I am interested in the use of preventive drugs. This is a challenging area because it requires large-scale clinical trials to identify the balance of risks and benefits. Training in epidemiology makes one very aware of the biases and pitfalls that can affect the clinical and public health research. Overcoming these and producing reliable and accurate results has always been a goal. And training students to be sceptical and careful is part of this.  


What advice would you give to someone considering a career in research?

Carefully choose an accomplished PhD supervisor who is a research leader in their field and speak to previous students.

What has been the proudest moment of your career?

My father telling me that my CV was the best he had seen (I am not sure he had seen that many…)

Tagged in alumni profiles,  research, Distinguished Alumni Awards